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Opera Club: Handel’s ‘Agrippina’

Georg Friedrich Handel

The Grange Festival. Click here to view the opera.

It might be an opera “discovery” for many of us today, but in its time, Handel’s early opera Agrippina positively established the composer’s international success. Written for Italy, it provoked a veritable opera sensation after its Venice premiere in 1709, running for a proud 27 nights. In the following years, Handel was to move permanently to England, where he swiftly secured a commission to write his first opera for London, Rinaldo, and embarked on a greatly successful career as an opera composer.

Agrippina’s enthusiastic reception was arguably aided by its fine libretto, written by Vincenzo Grimani. He delivered a gripping political drama revolving around the power-hungry Roman – wife of emperor Claudio – who coerces her son Nerone into unwittingly acting as his mother’s puppet on her way to the throne.

In a complex web of intrigue, Agrippina is characterised as cunningly using the weaknesses of the men around her to set the path towards control of the Empire, not even halting to play games with her closest trustees. Upon the unexpected return of Emperor Claudio, Agrippina plots the downfall of both her husband and the man who saved his life and has in return been made heir to the throne: Ottone. She does so by exploits the young and beautiful Poppea, who is pursued by Claudio, Nerone and Ottone, and – again unwittingly – becomes entangled in the struggles for political influence and romantic/erotic conquest. Just as Agrippina’s plan appears to come to fruition, the trust and affection between Poppea and Ottone is installed. Things begin to unravel for the powerful and greedy. With each character following their own agenda, hardly anyone in this narrative could be described as innocent – except Ottone, who is saved by purity of heart, and rewarded amply.

In his composition, Handel drew on some of the best music he had written for earlier engagements, for example Rodrigo, the oratorio La resurrezione and his dramatic Italian cantatas. Agrippina’s arias (“L’alma mia fra le tempese” and “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”) are as virtuosic as they a dramatic, on the other end of the spectrum, Handel presents moments of wonderful lyricism, notably in the elegantly orchestrated “Vaghe fonti”, sung by Ottone.

The 2018 production at The Grange Festival features Anna Bonitatibus as a very strong (both vocally and dramatically) Agrippina, alongside stand-out countertenors Raffaele Pe as Nerone (who is most typically sung by a mezzo) and Christopher Ainslie as Ottone. Stefanie True is a playful and vocally bright Poppea. Robert Howarth conducts the Academy of Ancient Music; the production was directed by Northern Ireland Opera’s former Artistic Director Walter Sutcliffe, the designer was Jon Bausor, who recently designed the set for our co-production at the Lyric Theatre, Kiss Me, Kate.

For previous recommendations for our online opera club, please click here.